I am terrified of being unemployed. As a transgender woman, I know that I am at risk of becoming a statistic, among those unemployed at rates three times higher than the national average, who are struggling to find work, and who are looking at a future that can seem bleak and terrifying. Surveys from the National Center for Transgender Equality have found that up to 26 percent of transgender respondents had lost their job through bias and discrimination and 50 percent had been harassed on the job.
Joan Westenberg (@jonwestenberg) is a tech writer and journalist, and a proud transgender woman. She is the author of an open source transgender inclusion policy in use by multiple technology companies, and can be reached at [email protected]
Although I’ve had a long career in tech as a director of communications, and I benefit from being surrounded by often progressive worldviews, the danger and the fear is still ever present.
Tech is not immune to trans exclusionary activities that, even when indirect and not necessarily ill-intentioned, can contribute to our sense of unease. Earlier this year, Google announced the inclusion of Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James, who had recently expressed anti-trans views, on their Advanced Technology External Advisory Council. While the response from Google employees was swift, and the council was disbanded, the underlying lack of questioning or insight into the trans experience from their own company was striking. Tech giant Dell has faced multiple complaints in recent years from transgender and gender non-conforming employees who claim to have experienced harassment in shared bathrooms, been limited in their roles, or, as one current lawsuit alleges, been let go because of the impact of their transition on their ability to travel. There have also been complaints from queer and transgender workers in Tesla and Amazon warehouses who have had negative workplace experiences with allegedly severe consequences for their jobs.
One of the key challenges for myself and the people around me is: At what point do we disclose that we are transgender? At what point do we tell potential new employers and coworkers about who we are? At what point do we share something that is intimate yet often clear, knowing that the information could prevent us from progressing through the hiring process?
On the one hand, our gender identity shouldn’t be a matter of interest or concern on a job application. It shouldn’t matter to employers whether we are cis, trans, trans/nonbinary, or intersex. It shouldn’t even come up as a discussion point. We ought to be able to walk into an interview as ourselves, and be accepted and acknowledged without being questioned. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. One engineer shared a story with me about arriving to be interviewed, and being asked for ID to prove she legally carried her feminine name. I myself have had a phone interview in which the recruiter expressed surprise that my voice didn’t match my name, and then asked what it was like to be “a transgender.” When we don’t disclose, we open ourselves up to uncomfortable and confronting experiences that are difficult to navigate and overcome.
But when we do disclose, we face a level of filtering and rejection that spikes on the inclusion of our transgender nature or pronouns. I include both of those in every CV and cover letter I have ever used, and I’ve calculated a roughly 40 percent higher rejection rate on my submissions, pitches, and applications than I had prior to transitioning and disclosing. Skidmore College conducted a a series of experiments that found that gender-diverse candidates who were equally competent, skilled and qualified were rated by participants as less hirable and less likable than their Cis counterparts. Another study found that transgender applicants were 31 percent less likely to receive a positive response to a job application.
Some recruiters have told me the information I share isn’t relevant, but it does allow me to both filter through companies where who I am would become a problematic issue during either the hiring process or my actual time on the job. It also allows me to avoid confrontations for which I may lack the emotional bandwidth or a sufficient sense of physical safety and comfort.
In places where it’s illegal to discriminate against transgender people in the workplace, there is still a level of subtle and unspoken discrimination that makes it harder to get an interview, harder to perform in that interview, harder to secure a job, and according to self-reported survey respondents, 30 percent more likely to experience discrimination. In that environment, disclosure is often both an obstacle and an algorithm for determining workplace suitability for me as a trans woman. That combination makes it a difficult decision every single time I look towards the next steps in my life and my career.